Micro-credentialing and Certificates

I was recently prompted to write my thoughts on an article from McKinsey titled “How to transform higher-education institutions for the long term.” Specifically, this was for a master’s course I’m currently taking in Change Management, and the question was about how to contextualize some of the challenges the article highlights within DePaul University. The response I wrote had to do with some work that I’m currently engaged in at the university, so I thought I’d share my thought process here as well.

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There are a few things I’d like to preface this post with:

  1. There are certain threats that apply to most – but not all — higher ed institutions. For instance, as has been reported in Higher Ed Magazine and other outlets, by 2025 college students are predicted to fall by 15 percent. DePaul is not insulated from this problem, and will have to address it in short order.
  2. Furthermore, DePaul’s position has a few glaring weaknesses. Our endowment is rather limited and, as a Tier 2 research institution, we don’t bring in a lot of research funding. What this means, importantly, is that DePaul is largely reliant on tuition dollars over other streams of revenue.
  3. Having said that, DePaul has many strengths. Our tuition cost is relatively low compared to other higher ed institutions, the value of our credentialing is relatively strong, and we already have good experience with providing a high-quality online education that other institutions haven’t prepared for. Scott Galloway has a pretty good piece that touches on how he defines a value + vulnerability matrix that influences my thinking here.
  4. Finally, I see one compelling opportunity for higher ed in addressing the skills gaps contributing to labor shortages in critical sectors.

What does this mean? In short:

  1. DePaul’s bottom line is reliant on tuition dollars, however,
  2. Our tuition cost is relatively low compared to the value of our credentialing – a credential from DePaul is a good deal! Thinking about how to expand this credentialing through different, and innovative, programs is therefore a place for exploration. Bonus points if they can address the aforementioned skills gap.
  3. We have existing systems in place that were developed before the pandemic to support and expand credentialing.

I would also add that, unlike many technical schools, DePaul places a strong emphasis on teaching students how to think as citizens. This is not to say that technical schools don’t teach this per se, but that as a liberal arts institution, teaching students to really think is at the core of our mission and values –the McKinsey article notes that mission and values are important to keep in mind during this transformation.

Having said all of that, the changes I would suggest are derived directly from this line of logic. Many institutions are already exploring continuing education programs through things like micro-credentialing and certificates offered in online formats. These programs are not quite a degree, but teach skills-based competencies that organizations like the Open Skills Network claim will address the skills gap in industry.

DePaul is situated quite well to take advantage of these kinds of programs because, as noted earlier, it already provides a valued credentialing system that can be delivered well in an online format. Certificate and micro-credentialing programs would expand our credentialing offerings, address identified skills gaps and, ultimately, help people get jobs and/or promotions.

Progress for a program like this can be measured in many ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, DePaul can measure revenue generated from certifications. More significantly, DePaul could measure the conversion rate of micro-credentialed students to enrollment in undergraduate and advanced degrees. Getting people “in the door” with a certificate – and proving the value of a DePaul credential up front — might very well be a more authentic marketing tool for a full degree than, say, advertising on Google.

There are two big and related problems that getting an institution like DePaul to adopt this strategy would face.

  1. Faculty (and staff) resistance. In order for a program like this to succeed, the faculty – as a body – would need to support it, since their labor would ultimately determine whether it succeeded or failed. The McKinsey article addresses this in passing when they note that “prior implementation of cost measures had been met with significant resistance from university faculty and staff.” There are already concerns in higher education about institutional values being threatened by bottom-line thinking first, and education coming in a distant second. Faculty are highly resistant to change as a result, and rightly so.
  2. Departure from DePaul’s mission. We are a higher ed institution with a focus on the liberal arts, not on micro-credentialing and certificates.

And therein lies the trick. DePaul should adopt plans for micro-credentialing and certifying students, while simultaneously ensuring that these programs continue to forward our values as a liberal arts, higher ed institution. If this can be done in a way that aligns with our mission and values, while still bringing us into this new age of higher ed, the institution’s community will ultimately support it and DePaul will continue to thrive.

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